A look at what – and who – is pushing the future in new directions


TV shows situated in each of the 50 states produces a map of American culture (by Andrew Shears)

From Baywatch (CA), Billy the Exterminator (LA), and Rosanne (IL) to The Office (PA), Murder She Wrote (ME), and The Wire (MD) this map gives us a lot to chuckle (or heckle) over.

Is it a mirror, or an insult? But, more importantly, why isn’t South Park representing CO?

Drawing on Thoughts … Thoughts on Drawing


They say, “A picture is worth a thousand words … “  Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the following chalk-talk with renown designer and illustrator Milton Glazer. Here, Glazer, Fulbright Scholar and founding partner of the celebrated Push Pin Studios, discusses the codependent relationship between drawing and thinking while sketching a portrait of William Shakespeare.

In his book, Drawing is Thinking,” Glaser suggests that all art is a form of meditation and that drawing is “a primary way of encountering reality.” He addresses societal reticence around the arts and the individual’s resistance to drawing (“Oh, I can’t draw … my drawings look like they were done by a 3rd grader … “) as missing the point, asserting that the value in drawing is not about “making things look accurate,” but rather drawing is a way of becoming more conscious of what one is looking at and expressively interpreting the world. “

Comments on Glaser’s theory hearken back to the cave drawings of primitive man,

“ … art started as a way of noticing things, focusing on them, fixing them in our minds, … that when our ancestors drew animals on the walls of caves, it was a kind of sympathetic magic … If they could draw them, they knew them, and they could control them. “

Fast forward to the digital age, where Michale Sankey discusses the effects of changing nature of “visual literacy” as it applies to education and curriculum design,

“In contemporary western culture, particularly the youth culture, visual mediums and genres are becoming increasingly popular at the expense of other mediums, in particular the written word (schirato & Yell 1996). Others suggest that the constant bombardment by visual images from so many quarters is already shaping [the youths] lives, influencing their attitudes and tuning their responses. As media simulations become more popular and persuasive they will increasingly encroach upon life experience to the extent that new senses of reality will be formed and media representations will in fact become our first order reality (Walker & Chaplin, 1997).”

New York Times Weekend columnist Brad Stone (1/10/2010, p. 5) observes that his three-year-old daughter’s world view and life will be shaped by myriad technological advances and gadgets, “ … digital books, Skype video chats, … toddler-friendly video games on the iPhone … she’ll see the world a lot differently from her parents.”

Stone goes on to discuss current research which suggests that “the ever-accelerating pace of technological change may be minting a series of mini-generation gaps, with each group of children uniquely influenced by the tech tools available in their formative stages of development.”

This phenomenon could only raise questions around Glaser‘s dynamics of drawing and foster an increased impact on what our own Cecily Sommers describes as our “associative fluency” – taking in information in multiple ways (seeing, hearing, moving) – a mechanism which serves as the foundation of creativity and innovation. The act of drawing or dancing or interacting with digital media (?) opens new pathways in the brain, shaking things up and creating opportunities for new connections to form. Until the age of eight or so, children are able to learn and absorb large quantities of information, forging extensive neural networks to handle the massive influx.

Conversely, over time, under-trafficked neural connections, thought processes and information that see little action, are unceremoniously closed down. Eventually the adult brain winds up using only the most well-trodden neural pathways as a short-cut default system (read: old people stuck in their ways). It continues to be our challenge then, to maintain ample neural capacity such that we are able to “encounter our reality” with resolution and vigor… lest we find ourselves in the cross-hairs of a virtual Wooly Mammoth with only a sharpened pencil to our name.

It’s the Underlying Assumptions, Stupid

Multiple perspectives - illustration by John S. DykesDesign thinking – Designers solve problems and create new possibilities by asking questions. On a new project, designers will invariably ask what designer Bruce Mau calls “stupid questions,” … “the kinds of queries that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve.”

As in a medical examination or a structural audit on a construction site, the function of the stupid question is to thump around in the context of a product or issue to uncover, understand and test underlying assumptions.  Designer Paula Scher talks to Mau about the value of approaching a problem from the perspective of an outsider,

“When I’m totally unqualified for a job, that’s when I do my best work … If you have too much expertise—if you think you know the answers already—you won’t be as open to offbeat possibilities. But if you’re a neophyte, you’ll ask what would seem to be obvious … From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility.”

Mau points out that, “The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can’t be done.”

Outside of the realm of design (which I believe is a debatable distinction, since most problem solving activities can legitimately stake claim in the category of “design”), this approach can facilitate reconsideration of the foundations of a situation, provide a different perspective on the world, and help us “regain focus and retackle old, entrenched problems.”

Cut to the White House Situation Room – In what has been described as a “head-snapping” moment, high ranking members of President Obama’s Afghanistan review team realized that his approach to emerging military issues in the region was not simply a matter of “updating” his previous strategy, but essentially “starting over from scratch.”

Over a three month period, President Obama engaged U.S. military experts in an “intense, methodical, rigorous, earnest and at times deeply frustrating process for nearly all involved.”  The decision-making exercise became a “virtual seminar” driven by the President’s “insatiable demand for information.” Not only did he invite new perspectives and challenge competing view points to debate, he also listened and asked probing questions a la “college professor/cross-examiner.”

Taking a page from Gordon M. Goldstein’s book on the Vietnam War, “Lessons in Disaster,” President Obama concluded that “both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson failed to question the underlying assumption about monolithic Communism and the domino theory – clearly driving the Obama advisors to rethink the nature of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Over the course of the analysis, Obama challenged the veracity of long-held assumptions about nearly every aspect of the Middle East scenario. By adopting the open, imaginative mind-set of the naive outsider/learner, President Obama engaged the U.S. military advisors in a rigorous design thinking exercise.

National security advisor, General James L. Jones spoke to the exhaustive inquiry, “From the very first meeting, everyone started with set opinions. And no opinion was the same by the end of the process.”

Say it with jewelry

Tiffany & Company blue boxThis holiday season, advertisements for premier jeweler Tiffany & Company bear the tagline, “Give voice to your heart.” For those with visions of something glittery and sparkly dancing in their heads, nothing could be more festive than receiving a gift in the little blue box.

Well this year, there’s a whole new option for those wishing to express themselves with jewelry. In 2008, four “opportunity architects”  from  the Royal College of Art, London’s department of Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) got together to form the 1234lab. Sarat  Babu, Stefan Dzisiewski-Smith, Guillaume Drapier and Hermann Trebsche combined their expertise in product design, design strategy, product development, electronic engineering and material engineering to develop products that can ”translate sound into physical objects.”

The 8hertz concept jewelry from 1234lab is a unique combination of “input, algorithm, 3d printing and fine handwork” designed to translate the “nuance, tone, timbre and timing” of the individual human voice into a one-of-a-kind three-dimensional form cast in precious metal.  (Think snarled wire dipped in white chocolate.) Here’s how it works:

“A recording is made of an individual’s voice, sampling every nuance, subtlety and accent. This high-definition representation is then translated via a custom algorithm into a three-dimensional form. The form captures the essence of communication. Each piece is individual and unique to the person who created it. The piece is then realized in precious metal in order to capture the moment in a timeless, durable icon representing the unique nature of human interaction.”

In this case, a short video is worth a thousand words:

So, there you go — whether the folks on your gift list have been naughty or nice, a unique 8hertz necklace can express your holiday sentiment like nothing else. I guess my only questions are — Is there a spell check? And, … how accurately calibrated is the 8hertz method? … i.e., what is the discernable difference between “I love you” and “I loathe you“?

Taking Your Life on the Road

Designing for reality: people won’t be hanging up their cell/smartphones anytime soon inside (what I refer to as) their traveling telephone booths. Microvision is working on ways to integrate social interactions while keeping your eyes on the road. It doesn’t help to focus attention, just your sight lines.

Fashion Statement

LED "Galaxy Dress" by British designers Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz; 2009“You look radiant!” …. No truer words were ever spoken to the gal who enters a room wearing the “Galaxy Dress” (shown left and in the video below).

London-based designers, Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, created the dress, incorporating 24,000 full-color LEDs under the label of their interactive clothing company, CuteCircuit. The dress, now on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, uses the smallest LEDs available, just 2 by 2 mm, hand-sewn into layers of silk and crinoline which diffuse the light and “can move like normal fabric with lightness (!!) and fluidity.

The Galaxy Dress is designed to run for up to an hour on tiny iPod batteries sewn into the crinoline. The areas without LEDs are covered with more than 4,000 hand-applied Swarovski crystals that range in color from clear to bright pink.  “The dress looks good even when it is switched off,” say the designers.

As for other bright lights on the horizon, designers Hussein Cahalayan and Moritz Waldemeyer have created their own version of Wearable Electronic Haute Couture – garments that incorporate a “complex set of micromotors and individually controllable LEDs” capable of displaying messages or even video imagery.

Talk about making a fashion statement! … The video below shows the CuteCircuit Galaxy Dress in action.

Paint-by-number toxicology

2009 iGEM competition Synthetic biology has been called the science of the 21st century. Rewriting the genetic information of micro organisms allows scientists to create new genetic machines that can perform extraordinary tasks.”

And, perched at the crossroads of biology and engineering is the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition wherein multi-disciplinary teams of undergraduate students from all over the world (112 teams this year) come together to dabble in scientific exploration of synthetic biology concepts with an eye toward real world applications.

According to the iGEM site, student teams are given a “kit of biological parts” meted out from an official Registry of Standard Biological Parts (yikes!) which they use as components to “specify, design, build and test simple biological systems.” Participants present their findings in an annual Championship Jamboree/finale forum.

Beakers, lab coats and pocket protectors aside, this is no activity for lightweights. Successful involvement in this impressive competition requires a winning combination of funding, equipment, research space, expertise, leadership, team work and commitment.

“As the premiere undergraduate teaching program in Synthetic Biology, iGEM attracts the current and future leaders in the field. The competition format is highly motivating and fosters hands-on, interdisciplinary education. Biology students learn engineering approaches and tools to organize, model, and assemble complex systems, while engineering students are able to immerse themselves in applied molecular biology… Students are given access to some of the most advanced synthetic biology tools currently available in the hopes of developing students into the best genetic engineers of tomorrow.”

The 2009 Jamboree took place last week at MIT and the Grand Prize winner of the Biobrick Trophy was the Cambridge team for their work on sensitivity tuners and color-generating devices that can detect and measure levels of contaminants in the environment. An eclectic group of graduate fellows, researchers, and honorary lab rats from the London School of Economics, the Royal College of Art, (and a guy whose “work on synthetic meat was recently featured in Wired magazine”), served in an advisory capacity to the Cambridge team.

Students participated in a series of workshops designed to “catch everyone up on the details of Synthetic biology” (I know I’m a little rusty), brainstorm, hone presentation skills, and encourage thinking around bioethical issues such as the far-reaching implications of a project involving live bacteria.

Daisy Ginsburg and James King from the Royal College of Art, organized a Colors Future workshop, exposing students to the behavior of various pigments from the natural world. The group explored many interesting scenarios around the use of pigmentation as an environmental indicator, engineering E. coli to be sensitive to “environmentally significant compounds,” including arsenic, mercury, lead, cyanide, etc. These genetically engineered biosensors worked on a color “dipstick” model wherein live bacteria changed color when exposed to various chemical pollutants.

“We envisioned a marketable product that reports the concentration of an inducer by colour. Each strain is sensitive to a different concentration of the inducer. The concentration of the inducer in the test solution can be determined by reading the pattern of pigmentation. Think litmus paper using live bacteria as the color change agent.  “Colour can be a meaningful but simple output solution for biosensors, adapting nature’s idea of warning colouration.“

The simple sensing mechanism created by the Cambridge iGEM team came about as a result of  multidisciplinary thinking at the juncture between science, technology and art. Their discovery has the potential to change the lives of tens of thousands of people living in remote areas of developing countries where pollution looms as an increasingly significant threat.

Joyful noise

Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin in the 1988 movie "Big."We’ve all seen Tom Hanks in the 1988 movie “Big” where he encounters the over-sized piano keyboard on the floor of Manhattan’s FAO Schwarz toy store. Watching him exercise his playful inner child is nearly as entertaining as if we were stomping out the tune to chopsticks ourselves.

Seems like whether we’re doing it or watching it, fun is … fun, and according to the fun folks at Volkswagen, the experience of fun can be designed to influence human behavior.

Such is the theory behind the German automaker’s aptly named “The Fun Theory.“  According to the initiative’s website, The Fun Theory is all about doing good by having fun, and seeks to encourage innovations around that theme through “The Fun Theory Award.”

“The award recognizes those thoughts, ideas and inventions that help prove the fun theory — that fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.”

Judging by the 5,561,328 hits on YouTube, The Fun Theory is a big hit:

For those who are game, The Fun Theory competition is running through November 15th, 2009. The first prize is 2,500 Euros (why not a brand new, very fun VW Beetle??).  The best entries will be constructed and placed on public display.

What's next in design?

"Future Tense" by illustrator Chris Buzelli (2009), featured on Communication Arts website; oil on wood; 11.25" X 15"; prints for sale.The College of Visual Arts, in conjunction with AIGA Minnesota, recently brought Patrick Coyne, editor and designer of Communication Arts Magazine, to speak at the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul on the occasion of the publication’s 50th anniversary. Slide after slide of clever, beautiful, remarkable, memorable, brilliant design flashed across the screen as our engaging design-meister/moderator guided us through the revered annals of visual communications mastery. 

Founded in 1959 by Richard Coyne and Robert Blanchard, Communication Arts — known in art schools and design firms everywhere by its initials, CA — is the largest international trade journal of visual communications in the world, featuring excellence in graphic design, advertising, photography, illustration and interactive media. CA currently publishes six issues a year; conducts five juried competitions; and hosts two websites, commarts.com and creativehotlist.com.

Word on the street is, “Communication Arts magazine is a great source of inspiration, with profiles and features on top designers and work.” It’s a well-designed magazine that keeps up with the latest trends, showcasing excellence in exhibits, styles, designers and design firms — work from both established Big Dogs and pink-cheeked up-and-comers. Even B.C. (before computers), CA Magazine and its competition annuals were held as the Gold Standard of good design. Students would pour over its starkly laid out pages finding inspiration and intimidation all in one swoop.

Starkness by design - Rather than be a designed element itself, CA’s senior management believes that the magazine’s role is to unobtrusively showcase the work of the designers as a “museum of visual communications.”  This could be a big part of the reason why its pages carry themselves as solidly now as they did in the early days. The magazine, like premier designs of eras gone by, has been able to maintain a presence and integrity, communicating on a level that is as fresh and relevant as the day the first perfect bound edition rolled off the presses. Editors note in a section on CA’s current homepage that “[while time and technology have changed many things], they haven’t diminished the power of a compelling image.”

So, the Q&A session was well under way when a student in the crowd asked,

So, what’s next in design?”

Coyne didn’t skip a beat and replied, pointing directly at the guy,

You are. You are what’s next; and I can’t wait to see what you’ll do.” 

He went on to talk about how technology has brought design tools to everybody, … about how anybody can produce a flyer, newsletter or website, … and how the consequence there is that designers are forced to bring value to their clients as strategic thinkers instead of just image makers.  He reassured us that this is a good thing; what used to be primarily communication through graphics and language has become something bigger, deeper and more complex. 

Our own Cecily Sommers ratifies Coyne’s point suggesting that design is rapidly expanding from “things” (the arrangement of visual elements) to “experiences” … from experiences to “perception” … and from perception to “meaning.”  The designers of “what’s next” need to be fluent in the language of meaning … metaphor … symbol … archetype.  Sommers points out that at the structural systems level, a brand, when it works, becomes a steward for a territory of meaning.

“The well-designed brand says, ‘We have a point of view, … we invite you into our world, … a world where experiences, perceptions, objects, humor and tone will be consistent.’  The job of designers, businesses, artists or whoever, is to build a portal that opens up into a world that is designed and engineered to support and promote a continuity of meaning. They need to be able to communicate an experience and its underlying meaning to the marketplace such that people are able to make it their own, to feel that they are a part of a community. If you’ve done a good job, you become a trusted and frequented resource. You can bundle your products and networks with your preferences and P.O.V. … and the whole shooting match reflects your world and the values held therein. You become a curator … a steward of that territory of meaning.”

Curator … the Oxford dictionary defines it as “to look after and preserve” … the NY Times Magazine Sunday Style section defines it as … “a fashionable code word among the aesthetically minded.”  Previously confined to exhibition corridors, the modern curator moniker tags anyone who engages in activities that involve “culling and selecting” …

Now, among designers, disc jockeys, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for ‘I have a discerning eye and great taste’ … Even news-aggregator websites like Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, promote themselves as cultural curators … sifts, sorts, … Putting things together in a certain way is a creative activity in itself … things like structure, flow and revelation are considered an art.” 

As Coyne and others suggest, in today’s design marketplace, the “what’s next” curation/juxtaposition of variable elements is the new value add. Indeed, even our PUSH Institute “Drill Down” bills itself as “a highly-curated sort and analysis of global trends and issues.”  Looks like what’s next is what’s now. 


So you think you can design?

Cut&Paste 2009 Global Championship, October 16th, NYCFinally, an answer to the oft asked question – Is there a fast-paced, real-time, interactive reality show for us designers? 

You bet your wireless digital stylist there is!  “… 16 cities … 256 international competitors … 48 champions … competing in 2D, 3D, and Motion Design” for fun and fabulous prizes. In the spirit and tradition of celebrating independent design and creativity, Cut&Paste presents the first ever global design championship, a culmination of the best-of-the-best from the Digital Design Tournament 2009, slated for October 16th in New York City.

“With the broad geographical reach of an Olympic event and the nervy psychological gamesmanship of the X Games, the championship approaches design as a spectator sport and amps it up like never before … As with the Cut&Paste city tournaments, the global championship will feature a tech set up that registers every mouse click and tapped command emanating from the designer’s workstations and projects them live and in real time on large-scale displays.”

Ladies and Gentlemen take your seats, as designers wait behind assigned keyboard/monitors in the darkened arena for the competition to begin. Like a heavy-weight boxing tournament, blaring music and a fast-talking MC transform the usually pensive and internal practice and process of creative thinking into a bawdy, white-knuckled, right-brain design-slam. Contestants must withstand the palpable pace and pressure as judging eyes watch strings of monitors and the minutes tick on down to the final hoorah. No stress here.

This past spring, the Cut&Paste competition traveled to design-centric locations around the world – the circuit, a where’s-where of all things hip and cool – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Boston, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Milan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Sydney, with sponsors that include Autodesk, IDSA, Motionographer, IdN Magazine, Stash, Flavorpill, Wired, Scion, I Amsterdam, Adobe, Wacom, Nvidia, Converse and Pantone.

In addition to fame, glory, and the esteem of their peers, the fastest-on-the-draw will win grand prizes which include a contract with 55DSL to design an exclusive limited edition of their Capsule Collection (t-shirt, sweatshirt and dress) to be sold exclusively at yoox.com … the best-in-show in the motion-design category will receive an opportunity to collaborate with Converse on a special, to-be-announced project. Woot!

And, I must say, Pantone has really rolled it out since the days of the post-holed PMS (Pantone Matching System) flip book. Their push into digital media is fierce (there’s even an app for that) and involvement in the C&P championship, deep. The colorful Pantone ”MyColor/MyIdea” promotion brings each of the 48 designers into the mix — 2D design contestant Allison Torneros from San Francisco (below), for example, is matched with Pantone color #103-1-2-C.  We also get a link to her website, email address, sample of her work, and a glimpse into her own personal “inspirational idea” — “cosmic creativity”. (Sorry, no astrological sign.)  To check out the match on the other 47 designers, or to explore the “1000 most recent color ideas” go to the C&P site.

Capture of Pantone promotional site

4-H Fashionistas

Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum and Michael Kors on the runway at Fashion week 2009Well, with New York Fashion Week behind us, it is only fitting for a design conscious blog to look back and recap some highlights. Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum and Michael Kors (group shown at left) sit ring-side as collections of every stripe prance by –  floofy dresses, structured trench coats, floppy hats, geometric handbags and strappy calfskin booties from designers like Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen, Armani and Chanel. Cathy Horyn gives a review in the New York Times titled, A Sputter Here, a Spark There. I’m guessing this means that she thought some of the designers presented winning collections, while others, not so much.

As with other mediums of design – industrial design, graphic design, architecture – innovative fashion design walks the fine line between creativity (wow, that’s so edgy and cool) and commercial appeal (will a twenty-something in Iowa buy that?). This season, influential designers shredded and draped their way around the latest synthetic/organic fabrics to bring us “tribal gothic” and “young, fun, disheveled.” Apparently, the function and value of all of this lies deep in the human psyche, reflecting both the aspirational style of the wearer, as well as the essence of the cultural zeitgiest. (What does it say about our cultural psyche when NHL player Sean Avery, seen front and center at the Marc Jacobs show, interns at Vogue and signs on as a design consultant to a men’s label? Probably don’t want to be sitting in the front row for that collection.)

Speaking of animal print, no discussion of recent runway trends would be complete without mention of the new leggy creatures strutting their stuff at this year’s Minnesota State Fair. Conan O’Brian’s white chocolate bust (with bacon hair) can’t hold a candle to what was going on in the livestock tent. Llamas, those long-necked pack animals from the highlands of Peru, ditched their trekking gear and donned “accessible American classics” for the fair’s annual 4-H Llama Costume Contest.  Lucky you – here’s a front row seat for the show:

Clearly, it’s all about attitude.  Models, and the designers who adorn them, must have a certain inborn sensibility, a panache, a plucky stance that tells the world that they – flashing the eau current fashion P.O.V. – are so all that.

The Play-Offs Part 2: It's all about the Box

Snip of pencil-rebel documentaryWho knew that writing about play would be such hard work. There is a lot of stuff out there on “play” … types of play, dynamics of play, the value of play, and so on.  Robin Marantz Henig, for one, writes about the serious side of play. (NY Times Magazine, February 17, 2009) Apparently, for scientists who study play, it is far more than a “frivolous luxury” …

“Play is a key part of neurological growth and development … an important way that children build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and cognitively flexible brains.” …

Well, if that explanation doesn’t take all the fun out of it, pondering the evolution of play goes a step further, delineating the myriad reasons why play is not hereditarily recommended:

“When it comes to animal play, scientists basically agree … that it’s a mystery why they do it, since there are so many reasons not to. It all seems incredibly wasteful, and nature does not usually tolerate waste. Play can be costly in terms of energy expenditure … using up calories the young animal could more profitably use for growing. … Frisky playing can also be dangerous, making animals more conspicuous and inattentive, and thus more vulnerable to predators and more likely to hurt themselves as they romp and cavort.”

We’re not talking dodge-ball here. Like play, the random and spontaneous dynamics of creative problem solving call upon inner processes which can both exercise the mind and delight the spirit. Case in point, the playful work of Grzegorz Kozakiewlcz, a mixed media artist who uses computer technology, stop motion photography, hand drawing, cut up cardboard, and a glue gun to create whimsical, wonderful miniature scenarios.  As you watch Grzegorz work his magic (below), you can almost hear his parents lamenting in the background, “We buy him nice toys and all he wants to do is play with the box… “ Also, note the hip, cool music. (Everything is so much hipper and cooler with a hip cool sound track.)

Making of Pencil Rebel 1 – Documentary from Pencil Rebel on Vimeo.

I’d like to say something disparaging about this man’s probable trust fund, but I am actually extremely envious of his devotion, capacity and opportunity to romp and cavort on his own inner playground. More maddening yet is his articulate and virtuous philosophical outlook:

“Whatever you use … advanced technology or a pencil, what matters is the initial idea and the process of its creation … Let’s do it a different way, like no one has done before.”

Rather than compelled to “turn off the computer and go outside,” a la Play-Offs Part 1′s interactive software bloke, Neave (rhymes with heave), I am drawn to enter the tiny cardboard world of the pencil-rebel.  There is something comforting, yet edgy, almost poetic, about Grzegorz’s work – small-scale, everyday objects rendered in pencil by the human hand; painstakingly cut out of pieces of brown cardboard; their creation documented and revealed in fits and starts before our eyes; their purpose left in question.

The Play-Offs Part 1: Real vs. Virtual


My first impression of Neave.com was that I had mistakenly stumbled across an online playground for stoners – the lights, the sounds, the painfully over done British banter complete with bizarre references to elephants named Dave – huh?

Paul Neave, the London-based interactive designer behind Neave.com explains his flash-design software such: “I love trying to dissolve the boundaries between code and design and exploring ways of making technology seem less scary and geeky, but more fun and human.” Undoubtedly, the site is amusing, but when it comes to dissolving boundaries – I have to disagree.  Neave’s flash graphics are fun, but in his attempts to make them more “human”, it’s hard to miss the irony that his use of technology is actually driving us away from the very definition of humanity: interaction with each other and the outside world.

Take for example, any of the following: Imagination, Bounce, Dandelion, or Flash Earth. Immediately upon opening the Flash Imagination screen, I am met with memories of playing Ribbon Dancer in my driveway. Bounce reminds me of the ball pits that I would bury myself in at Chuck-E-Cheese, the blowing of the dandelion seeds in Dandelion is a practice that I still indulge in, and Flash Earth or Planetarium – well, walk outside your front door and you can behold the real deal.

It is interesting to think that the catalyst behind Neave’s playful flash design is the nostalgia of our own childhood. It works for most of us now, but what about the next generation of kids? With the introduction of computers coming earlier and earlier in life, their first exposure to these games might actually be Neave.com’s version instead of real thing. Will the flash games still engage them if they have no previous, more tangible memories to build upon for their understanding of fun? How do “real play” and “virtual play” overlap? Must one precede the other in order to be effective or can we be engaged in a continual exchange?

Neave.com toys with this concept in a clever way. Paul Neave takes delight in his ability to use his flash-tech savvy to have fun at work, but I think we’re better off taking him up on his parting advice:

Turn off the computer and go outside. Go hang with your friends. Make lots of new friends. Count your blessings. Smile like an idiot. Don’t think too much. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t take life too seriously. Don’t pay attention to word I say.”  – Done!

"Hybrid thinking"? … Think again.

Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man"; di Vinci is often described as the archtype of the Renaissance manObama lauds innovative spirit … Future economic prosperity depends on building a new, stronger foundation and recapturing the spirit of innovation.” 

Historically, tough economic times have catalyzed surges in innovative thinking - Hewlett Packard and Polaroid were formed after the Great Depression, MTV came close on the heels of the recession in the 1980′s, and Apple’s iPod (developed during a sharp decline in sales and margins of consumer electronics in 2001) joined the “pantheon of game-changing innovations born of hard times, alongside Depression-era breakthroughs such as nylon and the jet engine.” (HBR, July/Aug. 2009) If history repeats itself, the current economic downturn is the perfect storm of opportunity for innovation.

The rustling in the bushes is all there – at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer suggests that, “Companies and industries that continue to pursue innovation during tough economic times will achieve a significant competitive advantage and position themselves for growth…” … And, “… companies investing countercyclically in R&D (biz-code for innovation) during downturns tend to outpace their competitors on the upswing.” (HBR)

What all this means is, between random jolts from the Federal Reserve and the pitch and yaw of consumer confidence, companies and industries around the world are rifling through drawers, combing executive profiles, and making the mad dash into the ethers in search of both survival and triumph in the huge pot of gold at the end of the Next Big Innovation. Suddenly, the fluffy and elusive x-factor of creativity/innovation/design has become the imperative “it-force” behind economic recovery and prosperity. From Washington to Wall Street, everyone is using the “I” word, rushing into the vortex with new takes on how to pin down and quantify innovation.

Dev Patnaik, founder and chief executive of Jump Associates, a Silicon Valley growth strategy firm (clients include Nike, Target, and Hewlett-Packard) discusses the underpinnings of innovation in this month’s Fast Company, ”Forget Design Thinking and Try Hybrid Thinking.” Fast forward to his point, Patnaik suggests that there is a unique role that designers and their skill-set/way of thinking can play in making everything — products, services, experiences, and industry-specific entities such as finance, education and government — better.  He then pushes beyond that thought to propose that something bigger is going on in the minds of successful innovators:

“… something bigger is going on, more powerful than the adoption of a single school of thought. The secret isn’t design thinking, it’s “hybrid thinking “: the conscious blending of different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo …”

We’re not talking about “multi-tasking” here … True hybrid thinkers (you know who you are) traffic in the cracks between traditional areas of expertise and are able to ”connect the dots between what’s culturally desirable, technically feasible, and viable from a business point of view.”  The new face of innovation demands that we “see the world through multiple lenses and draw meaning from seemingly disparate points of data.”

According to Patnaik, “hybridity” matters now because the problems we need to solve are too complex to be handled by any one skill-set. Gone are the good old silo days where depth in a single field trumps breadth in multiple areas. Audiovox design executive Lou Lenzi asserts that those who want to innovate, must be “one part humanist, one part technologist, and one part capitalist.” 

Well, “hybrid thinking” might be a catchy modern phrase, but it isn’t a new concept. In the spirit of “Everything old is new again,” hybrid thinking can march to the back of the line behind lava lamps, lime green and liberal arts.  Two words for Dev: 1. da; 2. Vinci.

Mobile home 2.0

Gulf Coast Box TurtleEver since the caveman ventured out into the wild with just his wits and a pointy rock, man has been innovating around mobility and the ultimate “portable sustainability solution” … a way to survive off-site, … the optimal home-away-from-home.

The learning curve on this, and quests of this sort, often involves alignment with the general laws of physics, or in taking concepts directly from nature. The turtle is probably the best example of the mobile home found in nature. More or less streamlined, the turtle meets many of the standard design criteria for an efficient, first-class living arrangement … self-propelled, built-in circulatory and security systems, … garbage disposal function …  internal temperature control … and in some species, night vision. If speed is not a factor, then the turtle is a superb model and translates directly into the backpack concept.

In ancient times, the backpack was a way to transport wild game from point A to point B – packing meat into many wrapped bundles and slinging it into a bag which hunters carried on their backs. Like the turtle, the backpack is a way to be mobile while carrying stuff – you can fit a small tent in there, some clothes, and a collapsible cup. (I used to be a big fan of the collapsible cup until I realized that all sorts of microbial flotsam and jetsam could just fester between those layers of moist, warm plastic. Ick.)  Unless you’re riding a horse, or on a bus or something, you’re really not going to get very far using the backpack mode of mobility.

Airstream trailerNo discussion of design and mobile living is complete without mention of the iconic Airstream – the visual nearly speaks for itself (shown left)…

“Airstream began with a single man and a most singular dream. The man was Wally Byam: his dream, to build the perfect travel trailer… One that would move like a stream of air… One that would be light enough to be towed by a standard automobile… One that would provide first-class living accommodations anywhere in the world. Every inch of an Airstream has a functional purpose. Still in use today, it is as sturdy and modern in appearance as the first day it swung into traffic. As a result, an Airstream is always “in style’ — conceived and constructed as a lifetime investment in happiness … “

While the Airstream vision of Wally Byam and his team remains a celebrated testimonial to travel, freedom, and sleek shiny objects – it looks like there might be a new trailer in town.  Move over Wally – the 252-degree Living Area is here.  

252 degree Living Area, a.k.a., the mobile-miniMobile-mini concept - unfolded unitFour French grad students, headed up by Stephanie Bellanger, have created the Mobile Mini House, a compact, aerodynamic trailer that camps out into a 252° semicircle. Still in the concept stage, the Mobile Mini, shown above and left, consists of five modular rooms – bed, bath, living room, kitchen and office. Cutouts in the walls and flooring allow for interlocking sections and vinyl screening pulls around to form a roof and walls. Neat, colorful, functional and fun … Barbie and Ken never had it so good! …

Stay tuned for some price points and user reviews … Assuming it has adequate ventilation, a good coffee maker, and stays in Central Park — I’m in!

A, B, C's of font design

biscuits-previewI was blown away the first time my accountant used the “f” word.  Since when does a bean counter talk bold face and italics?

B.C. (before computers) the word “font” was exclusive to graphic design.  Basically, unless you were a card carrying “creative,” you never had meaningful access to the secret society of typography. (Afterall, there are rules about this stuff … when typography falls into the wrong hands, all kinds of illegible things can happen.)

Anyone who has practiced the fine art of graphic design prior to the main-stream presence of word processing knows what I’m talking about. If I start waxing on about “keylining” or the living hell of “type spec-ing” you have my permission to slap my wrists with your pica ruler (google it). Let’s just say that, like nearly every aspect of our modern way of life, the design field, and specifically the manipulation of typography, has been literally transformed by technology.

In his classic tome, Designing with Type (1971), James Craig reveals the back story on all things typography — symbolic pictographs, iedographs, and early alphabets like Phoenician, Greek and Roman. Craig discusses the anatomy of a letter and common font terminology like: uppercase, lowercase, x-height, ascender, descender, counter, serif, san serif, boldface, italic, condensed, extended, leading, point size, punctuation marks, and the beloved “ampersand” … &.

When it comes to specific fonts, Craig has his favorites and goes into great depth on five classics that he believes provide a “standard by which to judge/evaluate all typefaces” — Garamand, Baskerville, Bodoni, Century Expanded, and Helvetica. I’m guessing that he would look askance at some of the fonts I’ve uncovered in my research here.

I’d invite Prof. Craig to contrast the Bodoni cap “S,” for example, with a cap “S” configuration designed by Estonian font designers, Vladimir and Maksim Loginov, made out of biscuit dough (biscuit alphabet shown above left). The brothers Loginov specialize in developing “unique, untraditional fonts.”  From the myraid samples offered on their website, I’d say they have exceeded this expectation.

If you’re still thinking that nothing could be more pedestrian than font design, fasten your seatbelts and take a look at the iQ Font project by Pierre Smeets and Damian Aresta. I’d bet large sums of money that the genesis of this idea occurred in a dorm room somewhere.

iQ font – When driving becomes writing / Full making of from wireless on Vimeo.

Baa-baa Bauhaus

sheep2-300x240Forget bioplastics, carbon nanotubes, “smart fabrics,” and polli-bricks, … Apparently, the new darling of the design world can be found grazing in flocks on grassy hillsides. In celebration of this ancient technique/emerging trend, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is currently featuring Fashioning Felt, an exhibition dedicated to exploration of the “varied new uses of felt,” a material derived from sheep’s wool.

A hallmark of such far-flung regions as Austria and South America, felt or felted wool is created by washing and pressing woven wool, causing the fibers to shrink and tighten into a dense fabric of uniform thickness. According to exhibit curator, Susan Brown, the process of matting together wool fibers using humidity and friction requires very little technical expertise and is believed to be one of the earliest techniques for making textiles. Wikipedia dates the practice back to before the Middle Ages, “… as the raw material has been readily available since the widespread domestication of sheep, the use of felted wool for clothing and other purposes characterizes some of the earliest civilizations.”  In fact, the word “felting” comes from High Old German, “a language spoken before the 12th century.”  (I myself have unwittingly been a practitioner of this craft for decades, as evidenced by the stack of unintentionally felted sweaters in the corner of my closet.)

 Felt walls in Wosk Theater at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California

We’re not talking about mittens here. The decidedly low-tech felt has found its way into the halls and walls of high style design and avant-garde environments worldwide. The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit presents “innovations in handmade felts and contemporary uses of industrial felt in a wide range of fields including product design, fashion, architecture, and home furnishings.”  An architectural application of felt from the Wosk Theater at the Simon Wiesnethal Center Museum for Tolerance in LA is shown left. The stacked felted wool walls create a peaceful and intimate, yet powerful “inner sanctum” for screenings and special presentations.

 "Relief Chair" by designer Ben Mickus

Commercially produced felted wool is also an excellent versatile material for dying and sculpting. Strips of wool felt can be cut, twisted, folded and stitched to form sculptural wall panels and firm thicknesses can also be combined with other materials to create sleek, modern furnishings. Heads up Bauhaus fanny-meisters Breuer, Le Corbusier and van der Rohe – designer, Ben Mickus pairs stair-stacked grey wool felt with stainless steel in his functional, form-fitting Relief Chair (2008), shown left.


But, probably the most fascinating element of the Fashioning Felt line up is video installation, Making of the Palace Yurt, by William Berry. Susan Brown describes the pain-staking project and processes in a February ’09 blog:

During a visit to Cooper-Hewitt about a year and a half ago, West-coast felt-maker Janice Arnold was intrigued by the form of the museum’s conservatory. Its domed roof and iron mullions resemble the radiating struts of the framework of a yurt — the circular tent dwelling of the nomadic tribes who first created felt. Next week, Arnold will begin installing Palace Yurt, an installation crated especially for the Museum’s exhibition.

The traditional yurt is a trellis-frame tent covered with thick felts made from raw sheep’s wool. The largest, most elegantly decorated tent is the place of celebration, songs and epic poems… Arnold will create a total environment from her luxurious handmade felts, which combine Merino wool with silk, metallic fibers and sheer fabrics … Her technique allows for richly textured [opaque] areas in combination with gossamer sheer ones.” 

So – New cool design isn’t always about uber-techno-nano breakthroughs. Really, the only necessary component here is the ability to be open to new possibilities. “Smart fabrics” might be the wave of the future, but close on its heels are the same old “dumb fabrics” presented in brand new ways.  The Fashioning Felt exhibit runs through September 7th… and, no time to spare. In an effort to raise the profile of wool and other natural fibers, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the Year of Natural Fibers. Really.

Post Note: For those who wish to pursue felted wool on a foundational level, the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture sponsors About Sheep Basics, an intro course designed to “provide a broad spectrum of sheep information for the new or intermediate sheep practitioner.” The $45 fee covers a 3-ring binder complete with all course materials. Individuals completing the course will receive a certificate of completion from the University of Wyoming.

Post-post-note: The U Wyoming course is about raising sheep, not making yurts.

Intro to design

dylan_poster-v2-202x300So, this is the first in a series of blogs on and around the topic of “design.”  The first in a series of anything is always tough … it hangs out there, with no real context or reason for being.  This first blog is going to be like that clunky riff of small talk at the beginning of a real conversation. We size each other up, make our introductions, set up some unspoken expectations, and plunge into whatever comes next.

The plan for this forum is to present a design find — something immensely informative, enlightening, inspiring, entertaining, or even enraging (which can be fun); do some thinking, pondering, ruminating, conjecturing, and reflecting on it; and then, open up a dialogue around the issues that need to be raised and the questions that need to be asked.

In this exploration, I’m hoping we’ll get close enough to touch the elephant, but also back-off to a broad enough perspective that we can behold the bigger animal. As for tone, look for something between academic and improv. Note: I am totally aware that chances are good that you will know a whole lot more about all of this than I do, which begs the open invite to step up and share your thoughts, wisdom, snark, whatever. Me blog es su blog.

Design defined — A nice tight definition of terms can be a good way to wade into a broader discussion — except that the concept of “design” is so elusive and complex that even the ubiquitous resource Wikipedia had trouble nailing it down. Design is a noun and it’s a verb, it’s a philosophy, it’s subjective, and it’s omnipresent. There’s applied design, graphic design, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, information design, process design, interactive design … good design, bad design, provocative design, and “designs on you.”  Some random perspectives that speak to design defined include:

  • “Design is the planning that [provides] the basis for the making of every object or system … as a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention … as a noun, “a design” is used for either the final solution/plan or the result of implementing that plan in the form of the final product of a design process … more recently, processes have also been treated as products of design, giving new meaning to the term process design.”  — Wikipedia (See what I mean?)
  • “Design implies a conscious effort to create something that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.” — more Wikipedia
  • “Design is about doing something — a process more than a product. Design is about identifying problems, asking good questions, and finding better answers.” — betterbydesign.org.nz
  • “Great design is deceptive … it looks so simple and obvious. Great design only works — only happens — when it goes right down to the heart and soul of the [entity] that produces it.” — Rod Oram, Journalist and Adjunct Professor at the New Zealand Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
  • “To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.” — Milton Glaser
  • “… to inform and delight.” – more Milton Glaser
  • “Design is thinking, materialized in objects and environments, inscribed in patterns of use, and addressed by analysis and planning.” — Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
  • “About half my designs are controlled fantasy, 15 percent are total madness and the rest are bread-and-butter designs.” — Manolo Blahnik

Ok, so, maybe a pithy definition of design isn’t going to help us as much as catching design in action — design created in the minds of people – revered icons, dewy-eyed students, purists, practitioners, … folks from all walks of life, trafficking in different disciplines and realms of influence, and impacting aesthetic and material experience in all corners of the globe.

Look for some of that in the blogs ahead.


The Carpet Kings of Invention

When I was younger, my mother used to stand on our back porch and survey the collection of building scraps that had somehow found a way into our backyard. She would complain, “I should have never married a carpenter” and I would  secretly disagree with her. That pile of junk was the root of my imagination. My childhood was incredibly rich and inventive precisely because my dad was a carpenter.

With spare sheet metal, rebar, paint, nails, plywood, window frames, you name it – always within our grasp – my brothers and I were able to build elaborate forts, extreme bicycle courses, flying machines, or whatever we put our minds to. We were the envy of the neighborhood kids and today, I am still gifted with a knack for fashioning all kinds of things. Over the years, I’ve had cigar box purses, skirts made from sacks, a bird feeder made from a lamp shade, and even a small bottle cap necklace business. None of these ventures would have been possible without the help of my dad, his tool belt, and his habit of bringing home leftover materials from the jobsite rather than just throwing them away. I am reminded of the words mounted on the side of the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis: “Bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.” I don’t think I ever would’ve known what that meant had I not started my life with a pile of junk to play with.

Even luckier still, it wasn’t even fake junk – K-nex or Lincoln Logs or any number of those lame building blocks that you buy at the store to trick your kids into being civil engineers or what not. I had real bricks! Firewood straight from the woods! Nails! Tools! And much to my mother’s dismay, lots of slivers, blue thumbs, and dirty, dirty hands.

So when I stumbled across the Ample Sample Contest, I was filled with a sense of nostalgia for my youth. The Ample Sample Contest encourages idea submissions on what you can create for the household using carpet samples. Anyone from students to design professionals can submit their ideas. The entries tend to lean more towards practical rather than decorative – I actually appreciate that more. Anything that is hand-made and carries a use value is not only clever, but it serves as an exceptional conversation piece. I know this all too well.

Last year, I purchased a wallet made entirely out of chip bag wrappers at a sustainability fair in St. Paul and began to receive an insane amount of compliments on it. It became so many that, I now frequently run an experiment with my friends just for fun. We’ll go into a coffee shop and make bets on how many minutes it will take (and who) will comment on my purse. My predictions have rarely failed. After about six months of ownership, the compliments still did not desist so I started to take a tally, which I keep in my purse. Today’s number: 714.

See for yourself for yourself how cool it is to be  green. :)


2009 Winner – The Shoekeeper


2009 Finalist – Magic Carpet Ride


2008 People’s Choice – Green Screen


2007 Winner – Care-E Purse

sqrdfinal2008 People’s Choice – Carpet Sqr’d Chair

A Picture of Sustainability

This is John Paget‘s award-winning video for the Congress for New Urbanism. Paget lays out his argument that while urban sprawl is designed to fail, new urbanism is a model that is built to last. In addition to his suggestion to keep our personal living spaces condensed, Paget should also recognize that it is important to look at our building methods on a large scale. Aside from the housing market,  businesses can begin to set the example by requesting sustainably designed structures for their companies. They may not be able to cut corners on the size of their manufacturing plants, but they can definitely cut social and environmental costs.

My dad is the owner of Sage Structures, a sustainable construction company in Madison, WI, and he has made a career  in tilt-up concrete construction. Consequently, I have been receiving environmental build lectures since I was a little kid. Especially in a climate like the Midwest, where winters can reign brutally cold and summers are unbearably humid, the quick heating and cooling capabilities of a concrete building can make a huge difference for a large building. Green Concrete, a division of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, also highlights the many other sustainable aspects of concrete buildings. They are much more durable than metal manufacturing buildings, they reduce energy costs by as much as forty percent, and concrete is made of air, cement, water, sand, and gravel – elements that are available locally most everywhere.

Due to its accessibility in the construction realm, a push towards concrete builds seems would be an easy first step in sustainability for larger businesses. For even more architectural ideas, check out Blaine Brownell’s publication, Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Physical Environment. He takes an innovative approach to design-build by using an array of unorthodox materials from coconut palm to” sonic fabric.” Pretty cool stuff!

My Search Engine Special Requests

Wolfram Alpha is the talk of the town in the online world. There are whispers that it may be Google’s usurper or at least, it’s number one contender. Set to launch this month, the Wolfram Alpha search engine strives to compute any kind of question you throw at it in a matter of moments. Instead of offering suggested web pages for further browsing, as Google does, it simply gives you the answer. Like that. The presence of British mathetmetician Stephen Wolfram as the brains behind the design of this super-powered calculator is fitting. A peek at his website will show you that he is the epitome of overachievement.  [Spoiler alert: He joined the ranks of Oxford University at the age of 17!]

Anyway, although I am curious to see if Google has finally met its match, I’m really not that impressed. There is still a lot of ground that needs to be covered in search engine progress and quite frankly, I’m waiting. Just for sport, here are two suggestions for new search engine development that once implemented, could easily rival Google by sheer necessity.

1. SongSluta search engine that enables you to find out the artist and title of that song that has been stuck in your head since fifth grade. The one that continues to haunt you in your sleep…you know what I’m talking about. If you hear it, you never catch the artist or the song title on the radio – something always happens – you go through a tunnel, your mother calls, or the DJ doesn’t indulge. You Google the few lyrics you know, but they’re so non-specific that the results always prove fruitless. You query your friends and relatives, but you’re all in the same boat. Nobody knows. By the time you’re twenty two, you’ve heard it 357 times and you’re convinced that if you don’t find out soon, you may slowly go insane.  For me, it was this song…

All I knew for fifteen years of my life is “do do do da da” part. Ahhh – can you imagine my agony?! With SongSlut, everything would’ve been okay. There’s my testimonial.

2. KeyJanglera search engine for locating your keys. Like Google Earth, but instead of locating your house, it would find your keys. Of course, this would require GPS in all of our keys, a slightly more expensive investment, but considering how much time it would save you – I think well worth it.

If you can think of more annoying knowledge gaps that need to be filled, by all means, let me know!


Green Xchange provides platform for sustainability collaboration

Nike, Best Buy, and Creative Commons all seem to agree that “corporate colloboration” has a much better ring to it than corporate secrets. Their debut of a new sustainability cooperation tool called “Green Xchange” paves the way for the sharing of intellectual property in the name of widespread innovation. Within this platform, companies can grant the access of their sustainability research and development initiatives to other companies. This access can be provided free of charge or for a price, at the individual company’s discretion.

Obviously, competing companies are not always going to be keen on working together, but conclusive research on product sustainability can be used by more than one industry.  The example that Agnes Mazur gives on the WorldChanging blog is that of a truck tire manufacturing company using Nike research on maximizing the efficient of air pressure in sneaker design and applying it to truck tires. This type of collaboration, with some consideration for free market competition, can save a lot of time and money. It also has great potential to accelerate the sustainability movement, which is good news in a world where it is increasingly evident that our carrying capacity has already been reached. Check out the informational preview here: Green Xchange

A Preview of A Global Dinner Party

This Monday, I had the opportunity to attend a test dinner of the Push Institute’s much-anticipated Global Dinner Party (now in its pilot phase) at the home of Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. The guest list included four lawyers (from corporate to entertainment to constitutional/security-torture-rendition, our mayor, a singer, a serial entrepreneur, a college student in need of a free meal/younger blogger (me), and others. The three-course dinner featured matzoh ball soup and salad, a Middle Eastern main dish, and chocolate meringue for dessert, but the conversation undoubtedly proved to be the main affair – so much that, I confess, I rather slacked off on taking notes. Like a good meal after a long day (when you don’t stop to wipe your face until you’ve cleaned your plate), I became so engrossed in the conversation that I did not pause to take notes for fear of missing the debate.

In our review of the evening, Cecily explained that “The aim of A Global Dinner Party is to bring people together over food and ideas, to share and challenge thinking about where we’re headed. We’re creating a 3-course menu of questions on topics such as energy, immigration, life expectancy, worldviews, exploration of space and ocean, morality, and other such juicy stuff.  If the conversation broadens and inspires people’s thinking, all while having fun, then the dinner is a success.  Ultimately, these are the kinds of experiences that ultimately impact how decisions are made — which is how change is made — and that’s what we’re after!  Share a dinner, create community, and change the world — what could be better?”

Discussion for the evening focused on (which) factors that create a stable and robust society. I’m not sure that we arrived at any answers, though there was agreement that a malleable framework (ability to identify and adapt to change) was indeed a key aspect. Some thought that framework depends on the soft stuff of trust and community, while others leaned toward the hard stuff of social institutions, i.e. government, constitution, laws, banks, schools, health care, philanthropy, etc.  It’s a chicken-egg/nature-nurture dialogue, but consensus wasn’t the goal, rather this group preferred to describe how a stable and robust society feels, looks, behaves. Terms used included safety, diversity, education, resilience, identity, production of goods and services, access to opportunity, common good, and leadership. Tom Wiese, my partner in the one-on-one discussion even argued that lazy people were an important aspect of society because the ambitious are motivated by others lack of action. – Interesting take!

The conversation then moved to encompass the benefits of our increasingly open-source government. With the introduction of interactive internet tools, more people are able to weigh in and hold sway. Nate Garvis of Target Corporations argued, “We have been suffering from a failure of creativity. We tend to throw the government and military at every problem. We use old tools for the new age when what we really need is more social innovation. The internet tools we now have allowed us to expand greatly in the world of social innovation.”

I could continue, but it doesn’t merit much for me to give you a play-by-play. It is our hope that every global dinner party will have its own unique face, but all will offer the opportunity to engage.

“The dinners are by design,” Cecily says. “It’s a way of humanizing ourselves.”

“I think we are surrounded by messages that drive us apart,” Nate adds. “We need to focus more on what we have in common and what better place to bring us all together than over the dinner table?”

Mapping Where It's At

“The Geography of Buzz” study was recently unveiled at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers and it pretty much told us what we already know. Based on thousands of photographs nabbed from Getty Images since March 2006 of New York and L.A., the study shows that icons such as Times Square and Kodak Theatre are icons for a reason: people go there.

Yet the real question is: who goes there? The authors of the study judged the popularity or “buzz” of an event by how many images of pictures of the happening were posted. Since images are posted on Getty primarily for purchase, this would signify that a picture worth being posted for profit definitely held some kind of buzz. But again, who’s buzz?

Ms. Elizabeth Currid, one of the authors of the study, admits to this fundamental flaw when she says, ““There’s an economy of scale. The media goes to places where they know they can take pictures that sell. And the people in these fields show up because the media is there.” Fortunately, she also recognizes how to mediate (pardon the pun) this problem.

Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, blogs – these are where people are talking not for profit and well before the media has even caught on.  “We’re going to see more research that’s using these types of finer-grained data sets, what I call data shadows, the traces that we leave behind as we go through the city,” she said. “They’re going to be important in uncovering what makes cities so dynamic.” The future of culture-maps? I think so. :)